Dutch foundation with British funds wants to give ’empty Spain’ back to nature

by Lorraine Williamson
rewilding spain
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PROVINCE OF CUENCA – Rewilding large, abandoned areas in Spain is the goal of Rewilding Spain, part of the Dutch foundation Rewilding Europe. The first large-scale project in Spain, ‘Iberian Highlands’, was presented in Cuenca on Wednesday.

The term ‘rewilding’ encompasses the return of wildlife, restoring ecological processes, restoring habitats and supporting the local economy. It does this by promoting nature-based businesses and nature tourism. ‘Iberian Highlands’ is the tenth project of the Dutch foundation and the first in Spain. The foundation works closely with the Spanish organisation Terra Naturalis and the local organisation Micorriza. 

850,000 hectares around Cuenca 

For this first project, the foundation has cleared an area of ​​850,000 hectares. This is located in the spectacular mountain landscape around Cuenca on the Spanish plateau. It is also partly in the provinces of Guadalajara and Teruel. The area includes the three areas Alto Tajo, the Serranía de Cuenca Natural Park and the Montes Universales Hunting Reserve along with other Natura 200 areas. In this area, there are 2 natural parks, 1 nature reserve, 2 micro reserves, 9 natural monuments, 1 Ramsar site and 11 natural river reserves. 

Empty Spain 

This region is very sparsely populated and is often referred to as ’empty Spain’. With two persons per square kilometre, it has the same population density as Mongolia. Therefore, it is one of the few areas in Europe where other ways of raising livestock can be demonstrated on a large scale. Although Rewilding Europe prefers to refer to ‘cattle’ as large herbivores (plant eaters) that work for the ecosystems. 

The combination of ​​high biodiversity, low human activity and urbanisation in this area makes it possible for livestock to become more of an element of the ecosystem again, according to Rewilding Europe. In addition, natural grazing helps to reduce the risk of forest fires. This is important now that the risk of huge forest fires in Spain is increasing due to climate change. 

Why Spain? 

Rewilding Spain explains on its website why it chooses Spain: “Spanish nature is one of the richest and most spectacular in Europe, but in many areas, there is enough space to restore some of what has been lost. Also, leaving the countryside, which affects much of the so-called “Empty Spain”, is a process with serious social, economic and environmental consequences”. 

Rewilding Spain wants to turn this problem into an opportunity. Moreover, it would be based on nature restoration and the growing demand of city dwellers to enjoy nature. This can ultimately lead to an improvement in living conditions in rural areas and combat the exodus. 

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Financing the project 

With a fund of €2.7 million, the foundation has developed a three-year strategy. The money comes in part from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, a British program for large-scale landscape conservation projects, and from a foundation of the watch brand Cartier. 

This money is used to finance pilot projects. These mainly consist of the lease of land, compensation for residents or the prevention of exploitations that cause damage. The pilot projects also serve as examples and inspiration for the residents, nothing is forced on them. 

First concrete projects 

The first concrete pilot projects include the following;

  • restoration of natural grazing through the introduction of horses in Mazarete and Villanueva de Alcorón
  • introduction of cattle in Frías de Albarracín
  • reintroduction of a vulture to restore the trophic chain

Under consideration is the demolition of the obsolete dam in the Cabrillas River and compensation to owners of primary forests for the loss of their timber income. 

Reintroduction of cattle 

The cattle, once common in this area, were introduced to the area 17 months ago and the ground where they graze is already changing. The animals mainly eat wood and other vegetation in their path and withstand all weather conditions without getting sick. The Taurus Foundation, which is also Dutch, helps with this. 

On the one hand, the purpose is scientific. Scientists can see the changes these animals produce in the landscape, in the pastures, in the insects; and the other is to see if there is any tourist interest to come and see these Tauros. 

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